The 39 Steps (1959)

The 39 Steps 1959

If you’re looking for Richard Hannay this is the man you want. Freshly returned to London, British diplomat Richard Hannay (Kenneth More) goes to the aid of a nanny ‘Nannie’ (Faith Brook) in a park only to discover there is no baby in the pram and follows her to a music hall where he watches Mr Memory (James Hayter). She goes back to his flat and reveals that she is a spy working for British intelligence looking for the organisation The Thirty-Nine Steps who are after information on the British ballistic missiles project. When she is murdered in his flat he goes on the run, encountering a bevy of schoolgirls on a train with their teacher Miss Fisher (Taina Elg) who reports him to the police but he jumps off the vehicle on the Forth Bridge and hitches a ride on a truck driven by ex-con Percy Baker (Sidney James) who advises him to stay at The Gallows Inn run by occultist Nellie Lumsden (Brenda De Banzie) and her husband who help him escape during a cycling race.  He approaches Professor Logan (Barry Jones) only to find the man is in fact the leader of the spy ring and he must keep running … I’m not having a Sagittarius in the house tonight! Hitchcock was responsible for the first adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy-chase thriller and this is a more or less straight remake, with the romance-chase narrative lines crisscrossing pleasingly as per the generic template established by The Master. More may be a slightly ridiculous hero but this is played for comic effect and its Hitchcockian homage continues in the casting of De Banzie who essays a knowing spiritualist in her crofting cottage. It has the advantage of location shooting, a winning plot, doubtful romantic interest, a deal of suspense and a collective tongue planted firmly in cheek. Directed by Ralph Thomas, written by Frank Harvey and produced by Betty Box. Keep out of the woods. Especially in August!

Tolkien (2019)

Tolkien

You’ll get your happy ending. Following the death of first his father then his mother, young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien finds love, friendship and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at boarding school who play sports and go to a tearoom each week and regale each other with their interests prior to going to University. Their brotherhood soon strengthens as Tolkien (Harry Gilby/Nicholas Hoult) weathers the storm of a tumultuous courtship with fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Mimi Keen/Lily Collins). From this impoverished childhood and a reliance on the kindness of strangers – Catholic Father Francis (Colm Meaney) who himself was a protegé of Cardinal Newman; and sponsor Mrs Faulkner (Pam Ferris) who takes him in; through the need for a scholarship to Oxford where after being sent down he meets a philologist Professor Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) who saves his linguistic bacon:  Languages never steal;  and the outbreak of World War I – he finds both his intellectual calling and his writing voice as he tries to find out what has happened to his closest friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle) while the explosions and gunfire rage and play into his hallucinatory thoughts and childhood memories of the stories his mother told him. These early life experiences later inspire the budding author to write the classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsWe are your brothers through everything. We are an alliance – an invisible alliance.  The early life and influences of the legendary fantasy novelist are explored in this beautiful production which is engagingly staged and beguilingly played by a very sympathetic cast. The trench warfare scenes on the Somme in 1916 which frame the story are well done and transition extremely affectingly back and forth to Tolkien’s upbringing, the links with his novels well established without being laid on with a trowel (Ronald’s batman is called Sam). Rarer still is the fact that the younger incarnations of the protagonists are easily the match for their older namesakes in performing skill. If not now – when? Written by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford and directed by Dome Karukoski, this was made without the approval of Tolkien’s family yet it has a sensitivity to war and youth and writing that are heartfelt and extremely winning. Things aren’t beautiful because of how they sound. They’re beautiful because of what they mean

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

The Great St Trinians Train Robbery

They’re only schoolgirls. “Alphonse of Monte Carolo” aka Alfred Askett (Frankie Howerd) is a hairdresser running ops for a gang of crooks led behind the scenes by an invisible mastermind (voiced by Stratford Johns). He gives instructions to Askett about a new train robbery, Operation Windfall, using a variety of gadgets. The crooks hide the money in Hamingwell Grange, a deserted country mansion, and after waiting for the fuss to die down they return to collect the mailbags which contain £2.5 million (the same amount as in the real Great Train Robbery). However, after the Labour Party win the election, the house has been converted into a new home for St Trinian’s School for Girls because the new Minister for Schools, Sir Horace (Raymond Huntley) is having an affair with the headmistress, Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan). The crooks decide to infiltrate the school by enrolling Askett’s delinquent daughters, Lavinia (Susan Jones) and Marcia Mary (Maureen Crombie) as pupils, in order to case the joint and retrieve the loot from its hiding place. The crooks’ attempt to recover the mailbags on Parents’ Day, disguised as caterers, results in a climactic train chase back and forth between the robbers and the girls… If a Labour Government gets in it means the end of all public schools – and that appalling school, St Trinian’s! The fourth and final installment about Ronald Searle’s anarchic schoolgirls under the original authors, Launder and Gilliat, this is a little more episodic than usual, using the recent real-life Great Train Robbery as the starting point, making satirical jibes about the current political situation, spoofing James Bond’s gadgets and that series’ criminal mastermind (the iteration here is voiced by Stratford Johns) and replacing Alastair Sim with Dora Bryan, who performs with gusto in this colour production. Richard Wattis, Terry Scott and George Cole return, and there are new faces familiar to TV comedy fans, like Eric Barker and Arthur Mullard. James Mason’s daughter Portland plays Georgina, one of the kids. Droll fun, with a terrific montage introducing not only the gang members (including Reg Varney as Gilbert the Wheel) but the teachers, including art teacher Susie Naphill played by Margaret Nolan (who was Bond’s masseuse Dink in Goldfinger), doing the real-life striptease she usually did in a Soho club, to music performed by the John Barry Seven! Directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a screenplay by Gilliat and Ivo Herbert, based on the directors’ story co-written with producer Leslie Gilliat. The final extended chase sequence is a doozy straight out of silent movies. A photograph of these sordid excesses could well unmask this whole imposture

It Should Happen To You (1954)

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I’d give my right arm to see myself in the movies.  Small-town model and actress Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) encounters documentary-maker Pete Sheppard (Jack Lemmon) in Central Park and after he shoots footage of her gives him her address. She dreams of seeing her name in lights after two years of not making it in New York City. She takes a gamble by investing in billboard advertising to get her name out there. Almost immediately her risk pays off, and she finds herself inundated with media requests and fans, including the affections of the wealthy Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford) of the Adams Soap company.  Meanwhile Pete has rented a room in her boarding house and observes Adams coming and going with Gladys, whom he is trying to persuade to exchange the valuable spot in Columbus Circle for six elsewhere and eventually she agrees. Gladys initially bathes in the publicity which earns her all kinds of advertising campaigns but Pete sees the downside of overnight success before she recognises that she’s famous for being famous All she’s got is nerve as far as I can see. A wafer-thin premise is spun by screenwriter Garson Kanin into an accomplished romcom that gives Holliday ample space to do physical comedy while Lemmon makes a striking debut. The story has a sting in the tail and Holliday gets to say that the most important thing in life is privacy:  so while the portrayal of the world of TV is a thing of the past, the message is very current. A slick concoction directed by George Cukor with (among other names of the era) Constance Bennett and her amazing cheekbones appearing as themselves in a TV show. I don’t stand for anything

The Witches (1990)

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You can never be sure if it’s a witch you’re looking at or a kind lady. Little American boy Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is holidaying with his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) who regales him with stories of witches, female demons masquerading as normal women but possessing undending hatred of children.  Helga’s best friend in childhood was entrapped by one of them in a painting and eventually faded from view. When Luke’s parents die his grandmother becomes his guardian and sends him to boarding school where he evades the attention of one such witch (Anne Lambton) and during the holidays at a seaside resort Luke become aware that witches are holding their annual British convention as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston).  When he and another boy Bruno (Charlie Potter) are in their midst they encounter a life-changing transformation into mice and have to avoid all sorts of predators as they try to escape to safety experiencing an actual cat and mouse chase … Real witches hate children! Adapted by Allan Scott from Roald Dahl’s darkly comic book, the biggest surprise to fans of Nicolas Roeg is that he directed it (perhaps not when you consider he had young sons at the time) but it has some of his recognisable tropes as well as a crew of his regular collaborators, including Scott, costumier Marit Allen and editor Tony Lawson in a production from Henson Studios with all that firm’s puppeteering and effects skills to the fore. The trick of balancing realism with fantasy, humour with horror, and scares for children (Roeg edited out more morbid material after seeing one of his children’s reactions) with jokes for adults, is perfectly achieved in this ambitious comic drama with Huston camping it up appositely to Zetterling’s caring grandmother. How is the room service here?/Diabolical./ Good! A third of the film is the adventure the boys have as mice, attempting to avoid becoming part of the hotel’s dinner menu, and there’s a marvellous payoff with formerly fat Bruno achieving his mother’s (Brenda Blethyn) ambition that he lose weight. The (happy) ending is different from that in the book and Dahl hated it and threatened to publicly campaign against it (Jim Henson dissuaded him) but overall it retains his casual cruelty and wit. Stanley Myers’ score is amped up with excerpts from Dies irae here and there to sound like Berlioz’ The Witches’ Sabbath. Shot in Bergen, Newquay and at Bray Studios, this was the last feature to involve the great Henson and the final one of Dahl’s books to be adapted prior to his own demise. A foolish witch without a brain, must sizzle into fire and flame! A witch who dares to say I’m wrong, will not be with us… VERY LONG!

 

 

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

Death Goes to School (1953)

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The children must always come first. The body of Miss Cooper a teacher is discovered by a pupil behind the sports ground at Abbotsham all-girls school with another teacher’s scarf cinched around her throat. Scotland Yard dispatches detective Campbell (Gordon Jackson) to lead the investigation along with his assistant Sergeant Harvey (Sam Kydd). Campbell interviews the teachers and pupils, but encounters one major issue: Everybody hated this teacher. This makes narrowing down the suspects rather difficult. But music teacher Miss Shepherd (Barbara Murray) has a very strong suspicion that the killer is a member of the staff and carries out her own investigation in parallel, bringing her to the home of the dead woman’s brother-in-law Mr Lawley (Robert Long) … You’re not like a woman at all. You have a mind like a man. This minor British murder mystery is lent an air of Gothic tension by the protagonist’s voiceover narration, a handsome dark-haired love interest and the use of fetish objects (scarves, shoes, matchbooks). But it’s hardly Shadow of a Doubt. Instead it’s a story of woman crushes, jealousy, suspicion and decidedly unsportsmanlike murder. The mini-drama comes from the grudging admiration between Jackson and Murray, who attributes the Scotsman’s language issues to his not being English. She’s a really good amateur sleuth and the clash is nicely done. She’s always streets ahead, of course. The girls’ school setting with its seething resentments in the staff room (where everyone calls each other Miss) is well established. A fine little suspenser with good performances and great hairdos, shot at Merton Park. Adapted by Maisie Sharman (aka Stratford Davis) from her novel Death in Seven Hours (Miss Shepherd’s alibi!) with director Stephen Clarkson.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

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He and I co-detectives? Not I. Not here. Not even in my rapturous moments of private fantasy! Renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Dr. John Watson (John C. Reilly) join forces to investigate a mysterious murder threat upon Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) at Buckingham Palace. It seems like an open-and-shut case as all signs point to Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes), the criminal mastermind and longtime nemesis of the crime-solving duo. Both men are diverted by American women – Dr Grace Hart (Rebecca Hall) and her companion Millicent (Lauren Lapkus) whom she insists is her electric shock treatment subject, a woman reared by feral cats. When new twists and clues begin to emerge, the sleuth and his assistant must use their legendary wits and ingenious methods to catch the killer who may have been hiding in plain sight very close to home I have the oddest feeling. Like knowing, but the opposite. Blending the steampunk approach of the Robert Downey films and the flash-forward visual detection of Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV Sherlock, this also has anachronistic shtick (Titanic in the life of Queen Vic, anyone?) and a cheeky reference to one of the more arcane Holmes incarnations in the casting of Hugh Laurie as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft – TV’s House, geddit?! (That’s a scene that doesn’t work, sadly). Some of the best sequences and laughs are with Hall and Lapkus, between the misogyny and the bits about nineteenth century medical treatments, with some genuinely amusing romantic farce and bromantic jokes.  This is beautifully shot by Oliver Wood, exquisitely designed by James Hambidge and costumed by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Naturally it’s only a matter of time until someone says No shit Sherlock and it’s from the mouths of Dickensian runts straight out of Oliver!  There’s a funny passing song that occasions a joke about musicals when the film finally lets rip à la The Muppets giving it more promise than it delivers and there are some highly contemporary visual and political references. So there’s wit and invention aplenty but it’s not quite clever enough all the time. Rather like Holmes. Minus the innuendo and lewdness this could have been a marvellous comic outing for children, agreeably silly with some easy but amusing targets but you know, these guys, they just can’t help themselves, with Ferrell doing too much of what he likes as the ultimate defective detective and Reilly as his hapless foil, a Johnson in more ways than one (until the roles get switched, which happens constantly and is confusing). The ladies are fantastic and Fiennes brings that immaculate class as is his wont and manages to be the only one who doesn’t actually twirl that comedy moustache; while Rob Brydon, Kelly Macdonald and Steve Coogan (as a one-armed tattooist) get their moments of infamy. Written and directed by Etan Coen. No, not that Coen, obvs. Terrible and clueless but not totally awful. Go figure.  A sniff of morning cocaine always helps the brain

Slaughterhouse Rulez (2018)

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That hole is a gateway. And it leads, straight down, to hell. Now, who wants to buy some drugs? Yorkshire boy Don Wallace (Finn Cole) is sent to a strange public school by his concerned mother Kay (Isabella Laughland) where he has to share a room with the rather eccentric and bullied snuff-sniffing Willoughby (Asa Butterfield). He finds his predecessor hanged himself. He falls for ‘goddess’ Clemsie (Hermione Corfield) but is warned off and gets homesick in this weird institution run by The Bat (Michael Sheen) with a horrible house called Andromeda where students undergo strange rituals. Useless master Meredith (Simon Pegg) spends all of his downtime Skyping former love Audrey (Margot Robbie) who has clearly found a new romantic interest in South Sudan. When a company called Terrafrack run by Bat’s mate Lambert (Alex Macqueen) unearths a huge sinkhole emitting a terrible methane cloud it appears it has disturbed some strange subterranean creatures in the woods. And there’s an eco protest group nearby where Woody (Nick Frost) has a stash of drugs he wants to sell but there’s more to him than anyone suspects … We’re going to let them run our fucking country? From a screenplay by debut director Crispian Mills and Henry Fitzherbert, this is the latest Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaboration, following their Cornetto Trilogy but they are minor characters, sidelined by attractive teens.  This is a story with the evils of fracking at its heart that traffics in charm rather than terror in episodic fashion. No more than Don’s mother, it has aspirations above its station in its references and a swipe at class difference, with a photo of Malcolm McDowell in the great If… on Willoughby’s wall. But it’s a schlock horror not a shock horror with lowbrow laughs, social commentary, some gore and a backstory that harks at myth. This may not be great but it is efficient genre cinema with oodles of good humour (and bad nature) and we might expect good things from the scion of Hayley Mills and Roy Boulting, never mind that he was also the frontman of Kula Shaker. The ecstasy of death

Fear in the Night (1972)

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Aka Dynasty of Fear/Honeymoon of Fear. Your pretty little brand new wife.  The fragile wife Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) of teacher Robert (Ralph Bates) is attacked in the bathroom of her boarding house by a man with a mechanical arm but nobody believes her and she is briefly institutionalised prior to his taking a job at a small prep school outside London run by Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing) a mysterious figure whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) Peggy instantly dislikes. Soon Peggy identifies Carmichael’s arm from the earlier attack and left alone by Robert one evening takes out the shotgun to exact revenge when Michael is visiting her but for some reason he can’t be killed. When Robert returns a plot is revealed in a school that isn’t open at all  … I spilled something. The contours of this resemble another school thriller, the French classic  Les Diaboliques, which director (and writer/producer) Jimmy Sangster had already transposed into a Hammer film for Seth Holt in A Taste of Fear a decade earlier. The marital triangle contrived here with co-screenwriter Michael Syson is more straightforwardly adapted in this version, with the relentless pressure on Peggy like a time bomb waiting to go off in the audience as well in what is also an alternate take on Gaslight. The very ordinariness of the physical situation somehow makes it horribly plausible and Geeson’s torment is clarified in her impressively detailed performance. It’s a fantastic role for her but Collins doesn’t get enough to do (even as a trigger happy sculptress!) and never shares time with Cushing, her screen husband. There’s an excellent use of flashbacks and a wonderful plot twist. And there’s a shot of Cushing – when he’s shot! – that I’ll never forget. Never mind his arm, what about those spectacles … I’ll find Michael. And if he’s still alive I’ll kill him!